Elizabeth I: Then and Now exhibition material

This article offers a descriptive list of items included in the Elizabeth I: Then and Now, one of the Exhibitions at the Folger.


Elizabeth enthroned, in Nobilitas politica vel ciuilis, 1608. Folger Digital Image 966.

Her red hair, white face and ruff are almost as familiar as his bald head and beard, making Elizabeth I and Shakespeare two of the most recognizable figures from English history. Elizabeth ruled during most of Shakespeare's lifetime, and the Folgers began collecting materials about her as they focused on Shakespeare. The collection on English history has continued to expand with the Folger itself, making it today the largest repository of items by and about Elizabeth I in the United States.

Born in 1533 to Henry VIII and Ann Boleyn, Elizabeth received the education of a prince. She knew five languages and was a talented musician, dancer and horsewoman. The dangers that surrounded Elizabeth during the reign of her Catholic sister Mary only served to make her politically savvy at an early age. When Mary died in November 1558, Elizabeth was prepared to take on the responsibility of the throne at the age of twenty-five. She was crowned in January 1559, and it is there that our exhibition opens.

Elizabeth Enthroned

The handcolored engraving shows Elizabeth enthroned. We know that she wore three different costumes for her coronation day, two of them inherited from her sister Mary. One of these had a mantle and gown made of cloth of gold, the mantle trimmed with ermine. Robert Glover, who wrote this book, was Somerset Herald and one of the great English genealogists.

The Plimpton "Sieve" Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, 1579

This magnificent portrait by George Gower, Sergeant Painter to the Queen, belongs to the early group of "Sieve" portraits where Elizabeth wears a red gown. The portraits take their name from the sieve she holds in her left hand, recalling the Roman Vestal virgin who carried water in a sieve, thus proving her virginity. In this painting, the globe on the left with the Italian motto "I see everything and much is lacking," appears to refer to Elizabeth's imperial mission as her explorers sailed out to new lands. On the right is her coat of arms with a quotation beneath from Petrarch, indicating that the Virgin Queen is beyond the woes of lovers.

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Court Life

Elizabeth's life at court was both religious and secular. She spent time in private devotions, and heard services in her chapel, with magnificent singing by a choir of men and boys. She loved music, as well as dancing, horseback riding and hunting. In addition, she watched others perform acrobatics, masques, tourneys, fencing, and wrestling. Many of the plays she saw were performed by boy students from the schools of St. Paul's, Westminster, and the Chapel. The queen and some of her courtiers also sponsored acting companies. In the 1590s, late in her reign, a new talent appeared on the London scene: William Shakespeare.

The "Bishop's Bible"

The Folger owns the actual copy of the Bishops' Bible given to Queen Elizabeth by Matthew Parker, Archbishop of Canterbury in October 1568. Bound in red velvet, with silver-gilt bosses decorated Tudor roses, the Bible would have been used in her chapel. On the title page is an engraving of a youthful Elizabeth with flowing hair. With Faith and Charity on each side, she becomes emblematic of Hope. Inside is a handcolored portrait of Sir Robert Dudley, her favorite.

I.B. Book of Prayers

This little book, made the year that Shakespeare was born, may have been used by a gentleman at Elizabeth's court for private prayer. It contains prayers for the queen and for the court. The identity of I (or J) B is still a mystery.


Elizabeth was known as a talented lutenist, and may have played an instrument similar to this period piece. In 1585 she received a box of lute strings for a New Year's gift from "Francisco", probably one of her musicians.

Merry Wives of Windsor

This is the second play by Shakespeare known definitely to have been performed before the queen, as noted on the title page (the first was Love's Labour's Lost). The tradition that Shakespeare wrote Merry Wives of Windsor at her request because she liked Falstaff has no foundation, but the play does seem to have been written for the Feast of the Garter, celebrated at Westminster in 1597. Mistress Quickly, disguised as Queen of the Faeries (and thus humorously as the queen herself) gives directions near the end of the play to

Search Windsor Castle, elves, within and out.
Strew good luck . . . on every sacred room.

Windsor, of course, was one of Elizabeth's own castles.

Hoefnagel, Visit to Nonsuch

Elizabeth's court traveled with her when she went around the country on her progresses. This colored engraving shows her arriving at Nonsuch in a plumed coach, as she must have done on many of her visits. The palace was built by her father, Henry VIII. In August 1559, during her first summer as queen, the earl of Arundel entertained Elizabeth at Nonsuch. He arranged for magnificent banquets, as well as a masque, music of drums and flutes, and other festivities that kept the party going until 3AM.

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Elizabeth's Wardrobe

Engraved portrait of Elizabeth I by Crispin van de Passe, 1603-1604. Folger Digital Image 985.

Queen Elizabeth's self-fashioning literally involved the use of "fashion."

She dressed to be seen; her rich clothes and jewels made a statement about her power as a female ruler and about the stability and strength of her nation. Their impact was noted especially by foreign visitors to court. From Germans we hear of her "red robe interwoven with gold thread," and her "pure white satin, gold-embroidered" gown. From a Frenchman, report of "a chain of rubies and pearls about her neck," and pearl bracelets, "six or seven rows of them."

Van de Passe engraving of Elizabeth

The drawing which served as model for this late engraving probably dates from ca.1592-95. The queen wears a wide French farthingale, made of silk decorated with a trellis design of a light woven fabric, caught up on rosettes by jeweled buttons. The over-sleeves are lined with an embroidered fabric. A wired veil trimmed with lace rises behind her elaborate ruff. She wears a jeweled girdle or belt, and pearls nestle in her hair and hang in ropes from her neck. The engraving was made after Elizabeth's death, and Roy Strong calls it "the most influential portrait ever produced of her."

Elizabeth Wingfield Autograph letter, signed, to Elizabeth, Countess of Shrewsbury

The queen received many rich gifts of clothing from her courtiers at New Years. In this letter, Elizabeth Wingfield reports to the Countess of Shrewsbury that her gift of a light blue satin cloak embroidered with pansies was a big hit: "her majesty never liked any thing you gave her so well." The detail below shows this quotation on the first line.

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Foreign Affairs

When Elizabeth visited her army at Tilbury during the Spanish Armada crisis in 1588, she said to them: "I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king . . . and take foul scorn that Parma or any prince of Europe should dare to invade the borders of my realm." No one did invade during Elizabeth's tenure. The Spanish failed in 1588 and the French were busy with their own internal religious wars during much of Elizabeth's reign. Politics and religion were bound together. Elizabeth attempted to keep Catholic Spanish and French influence from growing too large, while supporting the Protestants in France and the Netherlands. But she never wanted to throw too much money at these endeavors and used her various marriage negotiations as levers towards balancing the powers.

Henri IV of France

Henri IV of France was a Protestant who turned Catholic to resolve the religious conflict in France. Initially, Elizabeth treated him like a son, sending him advice and gifts. The letter on display is written in French in her own hand. She warns him to be valorous "For as to my son, if I had had one, I would rather have seen him dead than a coward"—but careful of his person. He must remember that he is not "a private soldier but. . . a great prince." Henri's most important act was the Edict of Nantes (1598), establishing religious toleration in France.

Armada Medal

In 1580 Spain conquered Portugal, and shortly thereafter the Spanish were implicated in two plots against the life of Elizabeth. Spain was also involved in conflicts with Protestants in the Netherlands. Elizabeth countered by allowing her sea pirates to prey on Spanish shipping and by offering some support to the Protestants. Philip retaliated by organizing a flotilla of 150 ships with 26,000 men, which sailed from Lisbon in 1588, bound for England. Fortunately, foul weather and faster, more modern English ships foiled the whole enterprise. The English were jubilant and the Netherlands were so delighted by the Spanish defeat that they issued their own celebratory medal. It shows the Armada ships dashed against rocks.

Map of Irish Cities

Elizabeth's government treated Ireland almost like a foreign country, as a territory to be conquered and ruled. During her reign, a number of English emigrated, hoping to get rich quick. The Old English, who had been in Ireland for centuries, had their own ways of working with the Gaelic chieftains and did not always appreciate these "New English."

This handcolored map shows four Irish cities: Galway, Dublin, Cork, and Limerick. The cities were ancient patrician towns, set up by the Anglo-Normans and fortified by the so-called "old" English in Ireland. On the sides of the map are figures showing three social classes among the Irish: an Irish gentleman and lady, Irish city dwellers, and the rural Irish, wrapped in rough cloaks.

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Leicester and Essex

Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester (1532-1588) and his stepson, Robert Devereux, earl of Essex (1567-1601) were two favorites of Elizabeth. Both men were handsome, physically fit, and intelligent.

Elizabeth knew Leicester from the time they were children, and of all her suitors, he came closest to being the husband she might have had. When he died in 1588, she took his impetuous, headstrong stepson under her wing.

Essex was more a soldier than a courtier, and finally his impatience with Elizabeth's regime cost him his life.

Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester, Autograph letter, signed, to Queen Elizabeth I

Leicester wrote this personal letter from the camp at Tilbury while the English troops were waiting for the Spanish Armada. Twice he puts little eye-brows over the o's in "moost" and he signs the letter, "your most faythfull & most obedient ["eyes" symbol] R. Leycester," intimate reminders of the queen's nickname for him, her "Eyes." A month later he died from a fever at the age of fifty-five, and Elizabeth was grief-stricken.

Collection of writings relating to the trial of the earl of Essex, 1601

Essex's popularity and the scandal of his execution are indicated by the numerous accounts that survive in manuscript. He had offended the queen by negotiating privately with Tyrone in Ireland, but his more serious offense was to promote an uprising in London by which he hoped to unseat the queen. The uprising never materialized, but he was tried for treason and beheaded on February 15, 1601. This manuscript includes an account of his trial and execution. As Essex came to the scaffold, wearing "a black velvet gown & a suit of black Satin. . . he earnestly desired [th]e people to pray for him."

Items included

  • Robert Dudley. Autograph letter signed from Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, Tilbury, to Queen Elizabeth I. Manuscript, [August 3, 1588]. Call number X.c.126 and LUNA Digital Image.
  • Francis ap Rice. Collection of writings relating to the trial of the earl of Essex. Manuscript, 1601. Call number V.a.164.

The Scottish Connection

Portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots in the Trevelyon Miscellany, 1608. Folger Digital Image 4631.

Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-1587) was worlds apart in personal behavior and political savvy from her cousin Elizabeth.

She was crowned queen of Scotland at the age of nine months, after the death of her father James V, but her mother, Mary of Guise, ruled for many years in her stead.

Educated in France and married off at sixteen to Francis II, she was widowed at eighteen and returned to Scotland in 1561 to take over her kingdom.

A second marriage to Henry, lord Darnley, produced a son, James, who was educated by Scots Presbyterians. After Darnley's murder in 1567 she married the man who had been implicated, James Hepburn, earl of Bothwell. But she was forced to abdicate later that year and spent most of the rest of her twenty years under house arrest in England.

Elizabeth, who believed that one sovereign should not raise hand against another, refused to have her executed until Mary was directly tied to plots against her, when Catholics attempted to re-take the English throne.

Mary, Queen of Scots from Thomas Trevelyon Commonplace Book, 1608

Trevelyon included pictures of the rulers of England and Scotland in his manuscript.

His account of Mary, Queen of Scots, says that she succeeded her father, James V, as queen of Scotland in 1543 and was “a princess virtuously inclined.” He makes no mention of Mary’s later marriage to Bothwell and fall from power, except to say that she “was put to death in england . . . after 18 years captivity.”

For more on this unique book, visit the page on the Folger exhibition Word & Image: The Trevelyon Miscellany of 1608.

Elizabeth I Autograph letter, signed, to James VI of Scotland

Although Elizabeth did not wish to declare a successor during her lifetime, she certainly had James VI of Scotland (1566-1625) in mind. She paid the younger man an allowance and kept up a correspondence with him.

In this letter she warns him to deal more forcefully with a group of belligerent Catholic earls in Scotland who were planning to support a Spanish invasion of the country.

At the end of the letter, when she is running out of paper, she apologizes for her handwriting:

"Now do I remember your cumber to read such scribbled lines."

Items included

  • Thomas Trevelyon. Trevelyon Miscellany [formerly called Commonplace book]. Manuscript, 1608. Call number V.b.232; displayed leaf 235, image of Mary Queen of Scots.
  • Elizabeth I. Autograph letter signed from Elizabeth I, Queen of England, to James VI, King of Scotland. Manuscript, ca. March 1592/3. Call number X.d.397 and LUNA Digital Image.

Elizabeth as Ruler

Elizabeth I ruled more directly than the current queen, Elizabeth II, who is more of a figurehead. All of Elizabeth I's advisors and members of Parliament were men, and while usually respectful of them, she also made her own views clear. She liked to see herself as married to her kingdom, with her subjects as children.

Glover, Elizabeth in Parliament

This hand colored engraving shows a meeting of the English Parliament. In the foreground, members of the House of Commons stand behind a bar looking toward the queen. Bishops and noblemen who constituted the House of Lords sit in the middle, robed in red, with their secretaries in black robes busily taking notes. The perspective point in the long hall comes to rest in Queen Elizabeth herself, seated in royal robes on her throne.

Saxton Atlas title page

Under Elizabeth's patronage, one of the greatest works in British geography was carried out. The surveyor, Christopher Saxton, traveled throughout the realm to gather information for maps. The result was a general map of England and thirty-four county maps of England and Wales. Some copies, like this one, were handcolored. Instead of a title, Elizabeth herself is enthroned on the title page, with figures of Cosmography and Geography next to her and a mapmaker and astronomer at the bottom. Evoking ancient ties between the sovereign and the land, she herself figures the realm that is laid out in maps behind her.

Items included

  • Renold Elstrack. Queen Elizabeth in Parliament. Engraving in Robert Glover, Nobilitas politica vel ciuilis. London: William Jaggard, 1608. Call number STC 11922 Copy 1 and LUNA Digital Image.
  • Christopher Saxton. [Atlas of the counties of England and Wales]. [London: 1590?]. Call number STC 21805.5 and LUNA Digital Image.

Elizabeth's Funeral

The order for the procession of Elizabeth I's funeral, ca. 1605. Folger Digital Image 1046.

Commonplace book account of Elizabeth's funeral

This decorative little book, whose compiler is unknown, gives a contemporary record of Elizabeth's death. It is mostly copied from the printed account in William Camden's History of the Most Renowned and Victorious Princess Elizabeth.

The story begins in 1603 when Elizabeth "began somewhat to be sensible of defect of health, & strength, with the indisposition of the air towards the end of January, being a filthy windy & rainy day."

She removed to Westminster, but "her appetite to meat grew sensibly worse & worse; whereupon she bacame exceeding sad, & seemed to be much grieved at some thing or other."

She died on March 24, at the age of sixty-nine, having ruled for forty-four years.

Delaram engraving of Elizabeth

This magnificent posthumous engraving, based on a portrait by Hilliard, is an apotheosis of Elizabeth.

In imagery taken from the Virgin Mary as the Woman of the Apocalypse, Elizabeth is shown crowned with stars.

Her earthly success is commemorated beneath in verses by John Davies of Hereford:

Lo here her Type, who was of late, the Prop of Belgia, Stay of France:
Spaines Foyle Faiths Shield, and Queene of State; of Arms and Learning; Fate and Chance:
In brief; of women, nere was seen, so great a Prince; so good a Queen.

Holland, Order of funeral

The order for the procession at Queen Elizabeth's funeral is recorded in a herald's manuscript handbook, along with a drawing of the coffin.

On top of the coffin rested a replica "of her majesty's whole body in her parliament robes with a crown on her head, and a scepter in her hand." This figure lay on top of the purple-velvet-covered coffin, "borne in a Chariot drawn by four Horses Trapt in black velvet."

Behind the coffin, the earl of Worcester, Master of the Horse, led a riderless palfrey.

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Afterlife, Then and Now

Elizabeth I after de Critz

"Her most happy memory liveth, and so shall live in all mens' minds to all posterity." William Camden, who wrote these words, left us the first full historic account of Elizabeth's reign. She had hardly died before people were looking back nostalgically on her reign, and throughout the seventeenth century, she was used as a model by both Royalists and Parliamentarians. Her accession day, November 17th, continued to be celebrated as a popular holiday with bonfires and bell ringing. She lived in women's minds as well. They were beginning to preach and write and teach in more numbers, and to them Elizabeth's life was an inspiration.

Popular culture items from the 20th century

Every age has interpreted Elizabeth according to their own views about women. Today, we admire women who are able to succeed through their wits and hard work as she did. We also like the power and glitz that often come with success. Elizabeth provides both. Alan Axelrod uses her political savvy to offer lessons for the corporate boardroom in his book Elizabeth I CEO, while Glenda Jackson and Cate Blanchett feed our appetite for historic costume drama in their film representations of the queen. We give our daughters Elizabeth dolls to play with, perhaps hoping that they will someday grow up to be successful women. The red hair, white face and ruff have become such a culture icon that we recognize it even in a rubber duck. Fortunately, however, "custom" cannot stale her "infinite variety" and Elizabeth remains the once and future English queen.

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